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January 9, 2021

Mangrove (2020)
Director: Steve McQueen
Actors: Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby

Small Axe: Mangrove cast: Who stars in the first film of Steve McQueen's  series, and when it's on BBC One

Synopsis: Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) opens the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill in 1968 and it soon becomes the evening port-of-call for the wider West Indian community in the area. The police continually raid the Mangrove and arrest its patrons, and this culminates in protests led by Crichlow’s friends, Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby). The police sabotage those protests, leading to a near riot, and nine of the protesters (soon to become known as the “Mangrove Nine”) end up in the Old Bailey on charges that could see some of them imprisoned for a number of years. Jones-LeCointe and Howe even represent themselves in an attempt to overturn the unfairly trumped up charges against them.

Review: Steve McQueen achieves the impressive feat of producing something that is not only of great public service value, but that’s more than a worthy addition to his own virtuoso cinematographic achievements as well. Primarily though, Mangrove is of prime educational merit in bringing to the forefront and valorising a key moment in British race relations history where a group of black defendants were, for the first time, able to win a key criminal case, and, in doing so, defy the historic institutional racism inherent in the Metropolitan Police – something that was to become ever more controversial, with the fallout of the Stephen Lawrence murder in 1993.

McQueen has always been a filmmaker trying to find the perfect synergy between the political and the aesthetic in his films, and where, for me, his 12 Years a Slave and Widows were a touch clunky in that didacticism, the balancing act is nigh on perfect in Mangrove. McQueen’s famed macroscopic feel is so permissible for sketching his main character, Mangrove bar owner Frank Crichlow, in the specific tinder box of multi-cultural Notting Hill in the late 1960s. The film begins with a bravura tracking shot, charting Crichlow’s walk to his new Mangrove bar, and taking in the sights and sounds of Notting Hill – a world away from the bourgeois paradise it is now – with various instances of graffiti reminding us of the racism at the time with references to “wogs” and “Powell for PM”. The verisimilitude is so impressive, and the CGI (assuming it was used?) is exemplary as the skyline shots of a London 50 years ago look so realistic.

The barefaced racism of the Metropolitan police, as personified in the main by Sam Spruell’s vengeful PC Pulley, is what transmits so clearly here. Equally telling is how the whole legal system seems so set against black defendants – from the unfair advantage the prosecution team is given in its attempt to champion the characters of the police force though it be extraneous to the particulars of the case, to the judge who seems initially resentful of the eccentricities of the Mangrove Nine’s defence (two of them defend themselves, the rest are defended by a young, plucky Scotsman, and they are backed by a lively and partisan collection of West Indian friends and relatives in the gallery). The speeches given to Jones-LeCointe and Howe in the docks as they deconstruct the case against them are particular highlights of the film, as are the performances of the central trio – Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, and Malachi Kirby – all of whom would be worthy nominees when the awards season comes around. (January 2021)

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